Seen from the mainland, PAG is a desolate pumice-stone of an island that looks as if it could barely support any form of life. Around eight thousand people live here, looking after three times as many sheep, who scour the stony slopes in search of edible plant life. Much of their diet comes from sage, which covers the eastern side of the island with a grey-green carpet. The two main settlements are Pag Town, with an attractive historic centre, and Novalja, a bland modern settlement whose beach-based nightlife has earned it the title the “Croatian Ibiza”. Tourism apart, the island’s main industry is the production of salt, with saltpans stretching out along the island’s central valley.
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Pag’s main culinary claim to fame is a hard, piquant sheep’s cheese (paški sir), which has a taste somewhere between mature cheddar and Parmesan; you’ll find it in supermarkets all over the country. The distinctive taste is due to the method of preparation – the cheeses are rubbed with a mixture of olive oil and ash before being left to mature – and the diet of the sheep, which includes many wild herbs (notably the ubiquitous sage) flavoured by salt picked up from the sea by the wind and deposited on vegetation across the island.
Pag Town is the venue for two carnivals, the first an authentic local event immediately before Lent, the second on the last Saturday in July, a re-enactment of the first for the benefit of tourists. Both feature parades and a good deal of folk music and traditional dancing, and the pre-lenten carnival culminates with the burning of the effigy known as Marko, whose ritual death is claimed to rid the community of all the bad things that have happened over the previous year. Both carnivals traditionally featured performances of Paška robinja (Slave Girl of Pag), a play of Renaissance origins concerning a captive of the Turks who is purchased and freed by a good Christian knight. Made up of rhyming couplets delivered in a monotone, it’s nowadays considered too boring for the average audience, and is no longer performed every year.